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From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

It was time to leave Bukhara, much as I would have liked to have stayed another day. After breakfast in the beautiful dining room of our hotel, the Mosque Baland, and farewells to our hosts there, we set off, driving east on the main road to Samarkand.

Gijduvan

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At the potter's wheel

Our first stop was in the town of Gijduvan (46 km north-east from Bukhara), famous throughout Uzbekistan for its distinctive pottery. The best place to see this is at the workshop of Abdullo and Alisher Narzullaev, just north of the main road. These brothers are the sixth generation of a family of famous potters, still practising the traditional skills passed down through the family.

The Gijduvan school of ceramics is unique. It is characterised by an overall brown colouring as a background, with yellow-green and blue hues as accents. The ornamentation of clay dishes and plates consists of mainly floral pattern, incorporating images of big flowers, leaves, and various rosettes, and some use of geometric patterns. Unlike other Uzbek ceramic styles, the lines of the patterns are slightly blurred, with a hazy effect created through the use of a dark glaze.

We were first shown around the museum of ceramics housed above their shop, which displays items from all over the country. Alisher described the different styles, and showed us some tiles made by his grandfather who had worked on the restoration of the Registan in Samarkand.

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In the ceramics museum

We were then taken to the workshop area where we saw his brother Abdullo at work at the potter’s wheel (see photo above), one of the daughters of the family painting some completed pots, and the different kilns.

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Painting the pottery

In the courtyard another of the girls was drawing designs for embroidery, a further family tradition.

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Preparing cotton for embroidery

Our tour finished, of course, in the shop where many examples of their work was for sale. There was really something for every pocket, with the smallest bowls starting at just $2, so most of us bought at least a small souvenir to thank them for the trouble they’d taken with our tour. But one of our group fell for, and bought, quite a large bowl; we were all anxious about whether she would be able to bring it safely home on the plane, which luckily she did.

Finally, we ended our visit with green tea and sweetmeats in their pleasant shady courtyard. Then it was back on the bus to continue our drive.

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Sweetmeats

Karmana

We made another short stop near the town of Karmana to see two ancient buildings which straddle the main road a few miles west of the town. On the north side of the road is the impressive portal of the Rabt-i-Malik, all that remains of a one-time royal caravanserai, where noble travellers would once have rested during their journeys across the steppe.

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The caravanserai portal

Almost opposite on the south side of the road a restored dome covers the well where the camels would have found refreshment. Now instead of caravans of camels, cars and trucks roar past these ancient relics, creating a microcosm of Uzbekistan’s ‘past meets present’ character.

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Restored well

In Karmana itself we stopped by a small park near the bazaar to see the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum, built in the 11th century. Its ornamental brickwork, with inscriptions from the Koran set in it, reminded me of the Ishmael Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara, though this one is older and less elaborate than that more famous example.

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The Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum

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Detail of brickwork

Petroglyphs

Our final stop of the morning was to take a look at some petroglyphs near the roadside. Uzbekistan’s most famous site for petroglyphs is the Sarmysh Gorge, but we weren’t able to visit there unfortunately. However, we did stop to see this small group in the rocks right by the road that runs from Karmana to Nurata, near its highest point Black Crow Pass.

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The road over Black Crow Pass

A short scramble up the rocks brought us to several with these ancient markings, reasonably well-preserved considering their proximity to the road.

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Petroglyphs

Nurata

We arrived in Nurata, which lies some way north of the Bukhara-Samarkand road, around lunch time and had lunch in there in a house in a residential area not far from the main road. This was a real family home, and we ate in what was obviously their main sitting and dining room, with shelves of ornaments and family photos for decoration. We sat on cushions on the floor, as is the Uzbek way, either side of a long low table. As elsewhere in the country, I found this home cooking better than many of the meals we had in restaurants, and there was certainly plenty of it.

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Lunch at a family home

We started with the usual range of salads, accompanied by bread of course, and augmented by some tasty cream cheese. These were followed with a bowl of the typical simple Uzbek soup – a clear broth with potato, carrot and meat (for vegetarians the meat was, we suspected, simply removed before serving!) We were then served big platters of plov, the traditional Uzbek rice dish – very tasty, although I for one was a bit too full to do it justice. There was green tea and bottled water to drink, and watermelon to finish the meal.

One small downside was that, inevitably, the ladies of the house were keen embroiderers, and they were eager to show, and of course sell, us their work. I admired, but resisted the temptation to buy, although I believe one or two in the group did get something.

Most of us did however make use of the clean toilet at the foot of their pretty garden! And then it was time for some sightseeing. We drove the short distance to the cluster of sights on the south side of town, where we paid a small fee to the imam at the Friday mosque in order to visit, and take photos of, Nurata’s ancient citadel.

Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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Ruins of Alexander the Great’s Fortress

There is supposed to have been a fortress on this hill-top above the town even before the time of Alexander the Great, but it was his soldiers who strengthened it in 327 BC. Locals believe that Alexander gave the city its name, Nur, and credit him with building the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe.

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Chris exploring the ruins

Alexander’s fort was constructed in the shape of the constellation of the Plough, and consisted of several parts, with an inner town, 500x500 meters in size, surrounded with a large wall and towers. Nurata was chosen as the site of a fortress because of its strategic setting at the border between an agricultural area and a wild steppe, making it a convenient point for gathering an army before attacking neighbouring lands.

Today the fortress is largely ruined, but by climbing the hill we got a good sense of its size and layout. The climb was very easy although it took a bit of energy in the hot Uzbek sun, and we were rewarded with a good view of the town and mosques below. The ground underfoot consists in places of adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of feet and by the elements over two millennia. As you climb you are walking in the footsteps of those who built the fort and who lived and worked here.

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View of the town
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Looking down at the mosques

At the top we found that people had tied small cloths to the bushes, probably reflecting Nurata’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.

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Prayer cloths

Visiting the mosques

At the foot of the hill on which perches the fortress of Alexander the Great are a pair of mosques, the town’s Friday mosque and ‘everyday’ mosque facing onto the same small square near the sacred Chasma Spring. Our guide Marat had intended that we only visit the older of the two mosques here, the everyday mosque, which was built originally for visiting pilgrims in the tenth century and which still retains its roof of 25 small domes. This is the mosque on the left of my photo taken from the hill-top fortress (above), and photo shows the interior of its main dome with a lacy effect created by the windows and central chandelier.

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Ceiling of the Pilgrim's Mosque

But the friendly imam insisted that some of us at least also visit the Friday mosque, which although newer and of less historic significance, was the more decorated inside. This probably explained his insistence that we see it, and as you can see he was also keen to pose inside in front of the ornately carved mihrab. This mosque also boasts one of the largest domes in Central Asia, more than 16 metres in diameter, which can be seen on the right of my photo of the mosques above.

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Outside the mosque

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Imam in the Friday Mosque

The Chasma Spring and fish pools

The Chasma Spring is the source of Nurata’s reputation as a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It is said to have been formed through a miracle, when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, struck the ground here with his staff. The waters rise nowadays into a rectangular tank near the two mosques, and flow down into the town along a narrow canal which skirts the small market-place.

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Local sightseers at the Chasma Spring

The waters are teeming with fish, which are considered sacred and cannot therefore be caught or eaten. These fish are large and very lively (guided by Marat we threw a handful of clover leaves into the pool and watched them react!), and they obviously thrive in the mineral-rich water. This water is believed to have health-giving powers, so people come from miles around to anoint themselves with it, and large water-containers are sold in the nearby market to pilgrims who want to take some of the water away with them.

Nurata market

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At Nurata Market

We also had time to wander through the nearby market. It wasn’t very large but proved to be a good place to observe daily Uzbek life and, as everywhere in this friendly country, to meet some of the locals. I got talking to the lady on the right in my photo above, an Uzbek tourist from Tashkent, who was feeding the sacred fish in the canal and keen to practice her few words of English – as I was my even fewer words of Russian.

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In Nurata market

Meanwhile Chris was invited into the front yard of a house to take a photo of a group of card-players.

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Chris's photo of the card players

Soon though it was time to go back to the bus to continue to our base for the night, one of several yurt camps in the Kyzyl Kum desert in the area around Aidarkul Lake.

Yangikazgan

Our main tour bus was unsuitable for the rough roads (little more than tracks in the sand) leading to the camp, so it was parked in the village of Yangikazgan for the night where we transferred to an old Soviet bus to drive the final seven kilometres. This gave us an opportunity for a brief look at this small rural village, very different from the Uzbek cities where we spent most of this trip. I was grateful for the brief glimpse it afforded us of genuine Uzbek village life.

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The children of Yangigazgan

The village is a Soviet-built one, so the houses are functional concrete blocks, but as everywhere on our travels we were welcomed with friendly smiles that were much more photogenic than any building. I spent quite a few minutes photographing the children, naturally, and I think they were pleased to be given a couple of the postcards from home that we’d brought with us in return.

I also enjoyed seeing other aspects of life here – the women spinning in the shade of the trees and others with the far hotter job of firing bricks in a clay oven.

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Women and children in Yangigazgan

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Women firing bricks

Our old bus seemed from appearances to be a bit uncared for, but I think that was just on the surface, as it coped very well with the desert conditions. OK, it was pretty uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do a long drive in it, but it certainly did the job and got us there!

One great little touch in the bus’s décor caught our eye. Chris and I are big fans of Newcastle United, so you can imagine our pleased surprise to find that this bus had a small sticker of a former Newcastle player (the gorgeous David Ginola) in the famous black and white strip above the door. I can’t imagine that there could be any connection between a French footballer and a remote village in Uzbekistan so I’m not sure how it came to be here. Maybe a French tourist gave it to the driver?

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Our old Soviet bus on arrival in camp

Desert yurt camp

We arrived in the camp and were welcomed with green tea and sweetmeats.

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First view of the camp

Then we were shown to our sleeping quarters. The yurts were constructed in the traditional style, with collapsible lattice frame walls, a roof of branches, and the whole covered in felt. As the weather was hot, the sides of ours were partially rolled back to allow the cool air to come in. The floor was covered with felt too, and from the roof hung colourful mobiles.

The yurts sleep four and we’d been warned in advance that we would have to share. Chris and I were allocated to one with the only other couple in our group, while those travelling alone or with friends shared with three or four others of the same gender.

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Our yurt, outside and in

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Yurt roof from inside

Of course, a yurt doesn’t come with an en-suite bathroom! The washing facilities at the camp consisted of two open-air basins and two basic shower cubicles, all fed with water from tanks perched above them, warmed by the sun. The two toilets were ‘long drop’ ones, situated on two dunes a short climb either side of the camp – fine in the daylight, a bit of a challenge to find at bedtime (we went in a small group with several torches between us) and a real concern to those of us (thankfully not me at that stage) who were suffering from the side-effects of Uzbek cuisine and needed to climb those dunes several times in the night.

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Desert camp washing and showering facilities

But I am getting ahead of myself, as we had a desert evening to enjoy first.

Camel ride

On arriving at the camp we had been asked if we wanted to go on an optional camel ride – an option that only six of our number took up, which surprised me. I personally rather like camels, despite their (probably deserved) reputation for surliness. Without doubt this was a great experience. We were led out into the dunes and took a circular route at some distance from the camp, so that for most of the ride we could quite easily imagine, just briefly, how it would have been to travel the desert in a caravan at the height of the Silk Road’s domination. And the late afternoon light on the dunes was really special, as I hope my photos indicate.

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Our group of Silk Road explorers!

As there were only six of us (so no need for the camel owners to do several trips) we got quite a bit longer than the promised hour, but I for one was still sorry to see the camp come back into sight and know that our ride was over and I had to say goodbye to Kumba, ‘my’ camel.

There was one incident which soured Chris’s pleasure at the ride, however, and he has never felt quite as keen on camel rides again since. He found himself riding alongside one of our travelling companions, Sally-Ann, who unfortunately had been allocated a camel who appeared to be suffering from the same digestive ailments as some of us, and with a lot less control! This at first only gave Chris a problem of smell, and distraction from the beauties of the desert, but then Sally-Ann’s camel decided he would like to walk much closer to Chris’s, and the result was a very unpleasant deposit on Chris’s leg!

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My view from camel-back
- Sally-Ann's camel, top right, is the culprit!

Luckily (?) Chris was wearing shorts rather than long trousers, so only he needed to be washed, not his clothing – and this is how Chris came to be the first in our group to try out the slightly primitive, but thankfully very effective, showers!!

A night in camp

Once Chris had showered it was time for dinner, and the meal we were served here this evening was one of the nicest we had on the trip, in my view. We ate at a long table set up under an awning near the caravan where the Kazaks who run the camp live and cook. First, bottles of water, vodka and port were placed along its length – the vodka very good (if you like strong spirits) but the port a little sweet for my taste, though others in the group enjoyed it more than the vodka. We could also buy beer and soft drinks at very reasonable prices considering that everything had to be brought out to the camp.

The meal started with a buffet table of bread and salads, as everywhere in Uzbekistan, but here there was a particularly good variety of salads, including aubergine, roast peppers, a carrot and cabbage dish, beetroot … After this we were served a tasty hot dish of beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onion, all cooked in the one pot (a bit like Lancashire Hot-Pot for the Brits among us!)

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Dinner in the camp

The meal ended with slices of very juicy watermelon, and then most of us drifted over to the campfire that had been lit a short distance away in the centre of the camp. Out in the desert of course, the display of stars overhead was amazing, and we had a great time spotting shooting stars and satellites and looking at distant galaxies through the binoculars of a keen amateur astronomer in our group, Lawrence, who was also happy to share his knowledge about what we were seeing. It was a lovely way to end the day, although it would have been even nicer if one of our travelling companions hadn’t though it a great idea to play his transistor radio – not popular with the rest of us, who wanted to enjoy the tranquillity of the desert uninterrupted by the noise of the 21st century!

Then it was time for bed. We made the climb up the dune to the drop toilets in groups before retiring for the night. We slept on mattresses on the ground, which I found a little thin, and were provided with a cotton sheet and coverlet. I used the latter to augment the mattress to give me a softer base – which is maybe why I became very aware of the cool breeze later in the night!

This was a very special part of our holiday, and I for one wouldn’t have missed it for anything! Sleeping here was a magical experience, especially when I awoke at about 4.00am to see a thin crescent moon through the lattice, and when I got up at 5.30 to find myself the only one awake in the camp. But that’s a story for my next entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes people children food architecture desert mosque road_trip history fort market village camp uzbekistan customs Comments (5)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

Of cranes and camels

India day six


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The road to Jaisalmer

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Flowers at breakfast

Today was another long but fascinating day on the road in Rajasthan, starting from Khimsar Fort hotel where we experienced a uniquely Indian twist on the buffet breakfast. Food was indeed set out on long counters for us to help ourselves, as you might expect, but somehow the staff were too keen to be helpful to have really grasped the buffet ideology and they kept bringing us things – a second glass of juice, toast, bananas … The room itself was lovely, with sunlight flooding in through tinted windows and portraits of generations of the family staring down at us as we ate. Had we not been excited to see what lay ahead for us on the road we would have been somewhat reluctant to leave this magnificent hotel.

Our drive to Jaisalmer from Khimsar, with the ever-helpful Mehar, took about five hours (not including stops). The road took us through small villages and across the Thar Desert landscape. Some may find this dry flat landscape dull, but I have always loved deserts and I enjoyed this drive a lot. And we made some particularly interesting stops en route too.

A warm welcome

As we drove through the Thar Desert towards Jaisalmer I asked Mehar if he thought it would be possible to stop to photograph some of the small round grass-thatched houses that we saw either side of the road.

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A desert home

I had in mind a few shots from distance with the zoom, if he felt that would not be resented. But when he spotted a suitable home and stopped the car he suggested that we walk over to it. Would they mind, we asked - not at all, he replied.

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The welcoming committee

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The family

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Our hostess

So we strolled among the succulents and a few low-growing gourds to be welcomed by two children near the entrance (it was festival time and there was no school). Their mother came out to join them and when Mehar asked if we could take photos, agreed willingly - and not just of the house, we could photograph her and the children too. An older brother came over to join us, then children from another nearby house came running. We were causing quite a stir!

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The neighbours arrive

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Decoration on the ground
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The family shrine

Mehar explained how the hut outside the wall was for the cows, while inside there was a large sleeping hut, a slightly smaller cooking hut, and two little ones to store grain. The family also own a nearby stone house, which has electricity, but prefer to use that only when the weather is cold and during the rainy season. The rest of the time these grass-roofed houses are cooler and they are happy there.

On leaving we offered the mother some rupees in thanks, so she might buy some things for the children perhaps, but she didn't want to take it, saying she was simply happy that we had visited. Mehar persuaded her though, helped by her small daughter who took the notes willingly!

Most of the children then followed us to the car, insisted on posing for more photos there, and then waved us off. Mehar had never stopped at this place before, so this was far from an everyday occurrence for them, and I do feel they enjoyed it as much as we did - it certainly didn't feel at all voyeuristic as some of those contrived "visit a village home" tourist experiences can do.

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The family

The cranes of Khichan

On the road between Khimsar to Jaisalmer we passed through Khichan, a rural village that would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that it has become the wintering place of choice for a huge number of Demoiselle cranes. Mehar suggested a stop here on our drive from Khimsar to Jaisalmer, and always up for seeing as much as possible on our sometimes long drives between the various cities we visited, of course we said yes. He said there would be lots of birds so I imagined a nature reserve of some sort, but this is something rather different.

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Demoiselle crane in flight

On arriving in the village he turned off the main road for just a short distance. He parked up and we paid the small fee (10 IR per person, plus 20 IR for the car) and walked up a short slope to the edge of the lake. There on the far side was a large flock of the cranes. The noise was considerable and it was fascinating to watch them as they were continually on the move – some taking briefly to the air before landing again on or near the water, others wading and drinking or feeding.

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The cranes of Khichan

But why are they here in such numbers? Well, this is a village with a significant population of Jains, who value all living things. In the 1970s a married couple here were given the job of feeding the pigeons, something that Jains do all over India (as, from what I observed, do many Hindus). As winter approached some demoiselle cranes started to join the pigeons and eat the grain that this couple were spreading on the ground. During the course of that first winter about 100 cranes came, and the next winter 150. But the local dogs started to hunt the cranes, so the couple asked the village assembly to make land available to create a safe feeding place for the cranes. This was agreed as the people here loved the cranes because of their vegetarianism and monogamy. Other villagers helped to build a fenced-in chugga ghar (bird feeding home) and local traders donated grain. From this small beginning a major migration has grown up, with thousands of cranes visiting the village every winter.

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There are tiny frogs too!

Feeding them has become a major initiative for the locals. There are now a number of feeding houses where the cranes congregate each morning for breakfast, before moving on to spend their day by the lakes on the edge of town, such as the one we visited. At night they leave to roost in the fields around the village, before returning the next morning to feed again. It’s possible if you are here early enough to watch the feeding, but if you come later as we did you can visit the cranes by the lakes. The small fee you pay goes towards buying the vast amounts of grain needed.

It’s not a bad idea to bring binoculars if you have them as the cranes congregate on the far side of the lake. We let Mehar have a look through ours, which he enjoyed, and some of the local village boys who were hanging around also had a go and seemed to find the new perspective on their avian visitors rather fun!

Other sights along the road that day included several of the colourful lorries I never tired of photographing (and one of these was possibly the best of the trip, featuring a vibrant Taj Mahal!), several antelopes, a group of camels crossing the road, and a stop at a level crossing for the Brikaner to Jaisalmer train to pass.

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Antelope

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Colourful trucks

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Passing train

Fort Rajwada, a beautiful heritage hotel

Jaisalmer is known as the "Golden City" because of the sandstone with which it is built, which glows gold in the sunlight, and arriving at Fort Rajwada in the late afternoon we could see that golden glow on the ornate entrance gate as well as on the building itself.

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Hotel gate

As everywhere, we were given a friendly welcome, with a cold drink, cooling towels and a garland of artificial flowers. We were then shown to our room, which was lovely, as was the building overall. The pool looked tempting, but we decided to leave that for the following day and instead made use of the hotel wifi to catch up on messages (the hotel offers a small amount of free wifi, after which you have to pay for a package according to the amount you want, although slightly annoyingly you can't use and then pay for what you had, but instead have to say in advance what you want).

At about 5.00 pm there was a knock on our bedroom door. Opening it I found a couple of men with a cleaning trolley offering "evening service". They insisted on closing our curtains for us and switching on the lights – both tasks we could have done easily for ourselves had we wanted to. As it was, with more than an hour of daylight left, we immediately reopened the curtains as soon as they had left, and switched off the unnecessary lights! It was helpful though to have our supplies of bottled water topped up and that alone was maybe worth the tip they so obviously anticipated.

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Flaming tomatoes!

We could have had a barbecue dinner by the pool here, but it was rather a warm evening we decided to eat in the air conditioned restaurant, Sonal, where you can choose between a buffet and a la carte meal – and naturally chose the latter as I’m not fond of buffets. I like to be served at table rather than scramble for access to the food among sometimes over-eager diners, and I also question the hygiene aspects when food can have been siting there for some time. This proved be a good decision – the food was all delicious and was brought to the table in rather spectacular style, with small tea lights burning inside the delicately carved tomatoes that ornamented each main dish. We returned the following evening and were equally happy with our meals and the service. Perhaps our tip on the first evening had been on the generous side, or maybe the waiting staff appreciated guests who chose from the a la carte menu – either way the head waiter welcomed us back with a broad smile and insisted we move from the table near the door where we had been seated to one he considered much better on the far side of the room!

Overall Fort Rajwada made an excellent base for our explorations in Jaisalmer – explorations which will follow in my next entry …

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Our room, and the pool

Posted by ToonSarah 09:35 Archived in India Tagged people birds desert india hotel rajasthan jaisalmer khichan Comments (9)

Glamping in Rajasthan

India day eight


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Thar Desert stay

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Desert sunset

Rajasthan is in part a desert state, and a visit here, for a desert lover such as myself, would not be complete without spending a night in one of its desert camps. It was this that brought us to Dechu. The Thar Desert is the 17th largest in the world and home to 40% of Rajasthan’s people who for the most part eke out a living growing what crops they can in its arid soil or raising livestock. But in recent years eco-tourism has brought a much welcome boost to the region, and we were here to help!

We left our lovely Jaisalmer hotel, Fort Rajwanda, after breakfast and set off through the desert, at first retracing our steps eastwards from a few days previously but then branching off to the south towards Dechu. The drive took only three hours, mostly across flat scrubby desert.

Along the way we enjoyed seeing our first mongoose on the road, while I failed to photograph successfully, and a large herd of camels, some 400 strong, by which Mehar stopped for photos. One of the herders explained that one camel had fractured a leg and they were trying to separate it from the rest. This was a great photo opportunity and I also managed to shoot a video of the herd – I found their constant movement rather mesmerising.

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Another sight, well-spotted by Mehar, was a small antelope, I believe a Chinkara, resting under a bush in a lentil field. According to Wikipedia around 80,000 of India’s population of 100,000 of these live in the Thar Desert so it was perhaps not surprising that we saw several while there.

Near Dechu the scenery got more varied, with sand dunes dotted with stunted trees either side of the road. About seven kilometres beyond the town we turned off the road into Samsara Resort.

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Chinkara

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Scenery near Dechu

We didn't stay at Samara Resort itself but at the Desert Camp about eight kilometres away. However we arrived here around midday and were given the use of a room and the run of the facilities until our transfer to the camp some four hours later (in October when we visited it is far too hot in the desert during the middle part of the day so guests only spend the evening, night and first part of the morning at the camp).

The room we were given was really lovely (we dubbed it "the nicest room we never stayed in"!) and we enjoyed a good lunch in the restaurant and a few pleasant hours swimming in, and relaxing by, the pool. I am pretty sure this would be a great place to stay if you'd like to sleep in a proper bedroom and see the desert on excursions rather than spend a night in a tent, however luxurious.

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The nicest room we never stayed in, and hotel pool

But that was not for us – we were headed for a night under canvas …

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Our stay at the desert camp was one of the highlights of our trip to India. The whole experience was wonderful, starting with our late afternoon jeep transfer to the camp from the resort, which, although a distance of just eight kilometres as the crow flies, is lengthened into a mini safari through the surrounding countryside. The return journey the next morning was to take just 15 minutes, but this outward ride was more like 90.

Our luggage was transferred separately (the next morning it was to travel with us) and we had the jeep to ourselves. After a short ride along the main road we turned off on to a sandy track that wound among some scattered houses. We passed the government-run school and the all-important water tank. We made a wide loop through this area, at one point spotting some more Indian antelopes, Chinkara, like the one we had seen earlier on our journey to Dechu.

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Chinkara antelopes

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The grandmother

We stopped at one house to visit a local family. Obviously this was a bit set-up compared to the visit we had made with Mehar a few days previously (see my earlier blog entry), but it was nevertheless interesting and the family were very welcoming. Mum and Dad were away working in the fields, so we met the grandmother and children. All were very happy to pose for photos. Unlike that previous visit with Mehar, we were able to go inside the various buildings which included a kitchen, living/sleeping house and storage room.

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Family possessions

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With our hostess and her oldest grandchild

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The home

Leaving the village area we returned to the main road, only to leave it again after just a short distance. Now we were among the dunes proper, although in this desert you find scrubby growth on the dunes rather than the empty wide sweep of sand you see elsewhere. Our driver took us on a roundabout route that involved at least three very steep descents – the sort where you get something of the sensation of being on a roller coaster (although much more fun to my mind). We stopped for photos at the top of one dune, and at another the guide got out and borrowed my camera to take pictures of our descent from below – although I was surprised when I looked at the photos later to see that the steepness wasn’t that apparent. Much more effective was my own photo taken looking down on him just as we started down from the top of the dune.

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Jeep ride in the dunes

Eventually we topped one particular dune to find ourselves looking down on the camp. We dropped down into it and pulled up at the edge of the circle of tents.

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Samsara Desert Camp, late afternoon

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We were greeted with the news that our luggage was already in our tent, number three, and our camel was waiting for us, ready for the next part of the experience as soon as we had freshened up. So we hurried to our tent to leave our day bags, taking only our cameras with us on the next experience, a camel ride on the dunes. We have ridden camels in the past and it is something I always enjoy (although after an unfortunate encounter in Uzbekistan, which I will no doubt share here some time in the future, Chris is slightly less enthusiastic!)

On this occasion, we both rode on the same camel. I was up front and could hold on to part of the harness, but Chris, behind, had only me to clutch. If I had fallen, so would he! This was quite a short ride compared to the one we had in the Uzbek desert – just up and over the nearest dune, a short stop for photos and then up to the highest point from where we would be able to watch the sunset.

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Our camel gets a well-deserved rest, after carrying us both up the dunes!

Desert sunset

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We arrived by camel at the top of the dunes, to find that the camp staff had set out some cushions to sit on and laid on a musician playing the traditional Rajasthani double flutes. A few other tourists from the camp were already here, having come by jeep. There were drinks available (tea, coffee and water at no charge, plus soft and alcoholic drinks to buy). It was all very low-key – we all stood around or sat and listened to the music, drinking a beer or a G&T and chatting, as the sun got lower over the dunes.

It was quite hazy, so the sky was pretty rather than dramatic, but the photo opportunities were greatly enhanced when a local happened to drive his flock of sheep along the ridge of the dune right in front of the setting sun. The sand kicked up by their hooves filtered the rays and created a timeless scene that made a pleasant experience into a totally memorable one.

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Was it serendipity that brought him here at this moment? Does the camp choose this spot because the locals also come here – or even, dare I say it, encourage him to do so to enhance our experience? Those thoughts occurred to me, but no, I think we were probably just lucky as, since neither shepherd nor hotel staff looked for a tip there would have been nothing for them to gain by arranging the scene.

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After he moved on there was time to take a few more photos of the post-sunset sky, and now our camel took centre stage in the photos.

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Dancer

Then it was back to the camp, this time by jeep, to settle into our tent before the evening’s cultural performance and dinner.

Evening in the camp

In the hour before dinner traditional musicians played in an area of the camp set aside for these performances. There was cushioned seating for the audience, drinks could be purchased and the first course of dinner was served, consisting of stuffed potato chunks, chicken tikka and vegetable patties. While we had seen similar shows in several hotels already (and were to see several more before the end of our trip, this was probably the most accomplished of those we saw, with the quality of the dancing especially notable. These dances are traditional among the Thar Desert tribes as are the elaborate costumes worn by both men and women. I hope you enjoy my little video of the performance.

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Musicians and dancer

Cultural performance

Our evening meal started with small appetisers handed round as we sat listening to the music - chicken tikka, stuffed potatoes and vegetable patties, and we ordered beers to wash these down. We then went up the slope, lit by hurricane lamps, to the dining tent where like all the other guests we chose to eat outside on the terrace. The meal was a buffet with lots of choice, and I found some dishes nicer than others (a potato curry and another with cauliflower among them). You pay for any drinks but otherwise all is included. When we had finished our meal we sat out on the terrace a little longer, enjoying the desert air and a final beer.

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Our tent at night

Desert sunrise

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We slept very well in our “luxury” tent, which was both gorgeous and comfortable. It had twin beds inside, with a properly plumbed en-suite with large walk-in shower behind, and a terrace with loungers in front. The tents are set in a circle nestled under a large dune, with another dune opposite. Part way up this one is the dining tent where both dinner and breakfast are served, and at the foot of this dune is a circular area where the evening entertainment takes place.

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The camp at dawn

The next morning we woke early to the sound of the camp coming to life. Some of the staff were walking around collecting the lanterns that had been hung in the bushes and outside each tent the previous evening, while others were up at the dining tent on the opposite dune, starting to prepare breakfast. When we emerged from our tent we found we were the only guests to have done so, somewhat to our surprise. Yes, it was still early, but it’s not every day you get to enjoy watching the sunrise in the desert. Armed with our cameras we climbed up the steep dune on the far side of the camp and were there in time to see the sun rise over the tents circled below us. Well worth the effort of getting up and clambering up the dune!

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Desert sunrise

By the way, when I first went out that morning I did so with bare feet and really enjoyed the sensation of the cool morning sand between my toes. But it’s not a good idea to walk around like that on the dunes as there are some very prickly burrs that attach themselves to shoes and socks and would certainly be painful if they were to attach themselves to you!

Once the sun was up it was time to descend for breakfast, which was a good one, with eggs cooked to order and other items, including fresh fruit, pastries and toast, served at the buffet. The musician who had played the previous evening when we watched the sun set from the dunes also played during breakfast which was lovely.

Music at breakfast

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Farewell to the camp

All too soon though we were leaving the camp behind us, very pleased to have had this chance to experience a taste of the Thar Desert and a stay so different from those that made up the bulk of our tour.

If you get the chance to do this I totally recommend it as it really shows you another side to Rajasthan. Yes, it is all laid on for tourists and is somewhat artificial, but at the same time you are out in the desert and getting closer to a harsh but beautiful environment that is home to many local people. And of course the camp also brings employment and a much-needed source of income to some of those people. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the guide who accompanied us on the jeep safari and looked after us during our stay was from a village just a few miles away.

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Our jeep driver

We met up with Mehar back at the Samsara resort. It was time to head further south ...

Posted by ToonSarah 21:53 Archived in India Tagged desert culture india music camp camel rajasthan Comments (14)

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